A good friend of mine sent me the audio version of a quirky novel called Trembling: at the speed of night (that’s “night” not “light”), and I thought I’d share an interesting section with you. It’s a complicated murder-mystery that half-way through develops into an odd sort of sci-fi-horror story. At this point, earth has received a communication from extraterrestrial intelligences who claim to be refugees fleeing a star system whose sun is dying, and seeking asylum here. They specifically request permission to land at coordinates in Quebec. The Americans, who have received the signal and are having a frustrating exchange with the aliens, try persuading them to land in the US; but they’re adamant: it must be where they say. So American officials are obliged to inform the Canadian Prime Minister and ask her to grant permission for the landing, insisting the business must be kept highly confidential. She in turn is obliged to inform the Quebec premier, a man she loathes because he plans to hold yet another referendum on the sovereignty issue. What most interests everyone at this stage is the aliens’ promise to gift earth their planetary library of three thousand trillion books concerning all aspects of a civilization said to be ten million years more advanced than our own. We pick up the story just before the secret landing ceases to be a secret, and all hell breaks loose. If you enjoy this as much as I did, I’ll post others, since the plot has more twists and turns than a Laurentian road.
From Trembling: at the speed of night by Duncan McNibb
It is set a decade or so in the future
At 13.00 hours the world changed, or rather it started to change. National CBC television and radio broadcasts were interrupted by a live address from the Prime Minister. Bergit Khan didn’t feel she could keep such momentous news from the Canadian public, who had a right to know. Clearly, though, they didn’t have a right to know everything: for the story Khan told made it sound as if a crew of intergalactic philanthropists were sailing our way in a cosmic library, to gift us with all the benefits of their immense wisdom and venerable civilization. Canada had been selected for this extraterrestrial benevolence, said the PM, due to the nation’s widespread international reputation for politesse, highly-restrained belligerence, fair-play and maple syrup. She was about to say more when another program cut in on her, and it was this one – soon labelled the Geomorph – that rammed the world into a grinder, from which what emerged was unrecognizable. For it wasn’t just the CBC interrupted; it was every station on earth and all over the Internet – in every language too. By mid-afternoon the U-Tube version had ten billion hits, because people weren’t viewing it only once: they were watching repeatedly, obsessively, compulsively. What you saw was a man in black seated behind a gleaming steel desk, a flag or banner filling the space behind him, its logo a red circle with two wavering green lines running diagonally through it on a field of blue dotted with nine silvery-white stars. Beneath the glossy black hair, threaded moderately with grey, this man’s face was morphing through every face that ever was, black, white, blue, yellow, red, ochre, pink, pointy, flat, jutting, withdrawn, square, round – all and everything imaginable. He said nothing for some moments, letting viewers take it in. Then he spoke, and nothing was ever the same again:
‘That’s right,’ he said, and everyone heard him speak their own tongue, ‘take it in, get used to it. For it is your new normal. We are the face of your planet, and, before you groan, we’re not happy about it either. But we’ve known this day would come for thousands of years – just not so soon – and we were prepared. Your pleasant little planet was chosen above seven others back in the Time of the Archons – to you, perhaps a million years ago – and we’ve been watching ever since, assessing, monitoring, ascertaining the stability, and of course visiting. Incognito, naturally. How else do you imagine your distant ancestors suddenly hatched out of apes? You still have plenty of apes, don’t you? Are they “evolving”, as you so laughably call it? No, they’re not, are they? Creatures adapt, but they aren’t heading anywhere; they aren’t aiming for some ultimate goal. Because there is no ultimate goal. Life just goes on, doesn’t it? On and on and on. We gave you a little nudge, though; and we watched, with interest at first. But, I have to tell you, it soon became excruciating, tedious, mind-numbing. The only animal here blessed with a brain that’s the most complex organism in the whole universe – I should know, I designed it – granted dominion over all other creatures, and what did you do? Nothing, that’s what you did. Nothing. We had it on what you’d probably call our television; but soon hardly anyone was watching. We canned it as a broadcast. Who is going to watch nothing happening for hundreds of thousands of years? You’re right: no one. The Tetrarchs watched on, though; we had to, had to consult the Academy about tectonic shift, earth crust displacement, and all the structural problems that make your planet somewhat dodgy at times. Occasionally we’d look in on you. By this stage you are what you’d call Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, traipsing up out of Africa as the northern climate improved, changing your diet a little, and using that massive brain – for what? For the stunning realization that certain stones or rocks could be chipped into blades; and the blades didn’t necessarily have to be held, chafing fingers, reducing reach – they could actually be attached, using plant fibres, to sticks of many lengths. Amazing, no? No. It was sad. And boring. Very boring. It was especially sad for me, though, since I’d had such high hopes for that great brain. We’re not supposed to meddle with alien lifeforms; but we do; everyone does. Many told me that this apparent failure was my punishment for illicit meddling. We did some tests. It was soon apparent that genetic material from your apes had a more potent resilience than we’d bargained for. It was dominant. It explained why you fought each other all the time. You killed your spouses and children too, so there was no rhyme or reason to it, no safety or security in the family or tribe – as you liked to pretend there was. Look at your chimpanzees today: mayhem, occasional cuteness, carnage, a justified and utter lack of trust. That’s what it’s like. What, you say?: there wasn’t enough wildlife teeming away in the forests and on the plains for you all to eat, to share? It’s not as if you had more pressing business than hunting, is it? No. And some had no pressing business at all – just hope the mysterious sun would rise tomorrow, and then lie there gaping at the stars, not a cogent thought in your low-browed heads. Pathetic. Risible. Were you so bored that stomping over to the nearest cave-dwellers, kicking them over a cliff, dashing out their brains, and taking their stuff seemed like a worthwhile enterprise? And no one really had any stuff, did they? A few skins, bones, some stone blades; and the womenfolk of course. You did know how to breed, if not why you were doing it. Perhaps the sight of other beings you suspect – curtesy of a still pool or slow river – resemble you infuriates something inside? Hmm? What is it? The world isn’t big enough for you? Life isn’t big enough? And the poor Neanderthals! They bothered no one, kept to themselves, didn’t even eat flesh. But that wasn’t good enough, was it? Oh no. You had to exterminate them, didn’t you? But they clearly weren’t so repugnant or loathsome that you couldn’t rape some of their women and haul them off into the smoke, were they? I must admit, I was expecting more, much more. We all were. Five, six, seven hundred thousand years, chip-chip, chop-chop, whack! There’s only so much one can bear, isn’t there? When the art started, our spirits were lifted – figuratively speaking – but not for long. Animals, animals, animals – that’s all you daubed to brighten up those choking caverns that were too dark to see anything in without a fire – and then the smoke blotted everything out again. Miserable. Art is about people, not animals. Why didn’t you paint yourselves? Too shameful, eh? Too arduous? You didn’t dare hold up the mirror, eh? In the time it took for you to discover one tool – a pebble of flint – our histories tell, we had developed into a civilization estimated to be ten million years ahead of yours now. And that was a million years ago. I couldn’t take it anymore. None of us could. Even if it meant breaking the law – and our lawyers will argue that it wasn’t, it didn’t – we determined to help you in any way we could. We started on a large island in the mid-Atlantic – you still call it Atlantis, even though you don’t believe it existed, hah! – in order to contain the experiment in case it failed. Yes, there was some genetic fiddling. Since this was nominally illegal in our world – so until then it was all theory, no practice — there was some trial and error. Quite a bit of error in fact. The first four beings we created turned out to be far too intelligent, far too advanced. We were looking for a farming people, an agricultural society, not a tribe of sages, lordly hierarchs. Philosophy doesn’t do much for sowers of seed, does it? No. But the next batch we produced proved not to be intelligent enough. The brain I designed was mighty indeed, but with this bunch it was housed inside what was more ape than man. It was analogous to giving one of your computers to a gorilla: the lights might be fascinating, but utility ends there. So we were moving on to making a third group when disaster struck – as it will do on your planet. A crustal displacement sent the whole island continent hurtling south – it’s now what you call Antarctica. If you ever get around to exploring a mile or so beneath the ice there, you’ll still be able to find ruins of our city, and even the racecourse described by Plato, whose grandfather, Solon, heard this account from the Egyptian priesthood, who knew all about it. Obviously, there weren’t many survivors; but there were some. We headed up into orbit, as you might expect; the cataclysm was a shock; we weren’t about to venture down again until we were certain the planet was stable — which was quite some time by your standards. And what we found both surprised and, initially, dismayed us. Our first four replicants – the very intelligent ones – had evidently escaped the catastrophe in a sailing ship they’d wisely built in anticipation of such an event; they sailed along with a large number of beings from the second creation. Their ship had crossed the ocean and found its way into what you call the Mediterranean, eventually landing in Egypt, which was then largely fertile savannah. This would be, for you, about 12,000 years ago. By the time we arrived, the four sages had established themselves as god-like leaders over the ape men and women, who’d been reproducing at a frenzied rate. It was their one great talent. There were thousands of them, lumbering about with this vast brain tormenting them. It kept giving them ideas they couldn’t use, which made them deeply depressed, a state with which we were quite unfamiliar. Yet the four godlings had been able to keep this gloomy mass under a semblance of control. There was a remarkable sense of order and even devotion; as well as signs of a constructive development far exceeding that of the violent Cro-Magnons shivering away up in Europe. Yet it was clear that our ape people were in for a rough time of it, handicapped on both ends of the genetic code. We realized we’d blundered, and perhaps realized more fully why our meddling was allegedly forbidden. One learns from experience, as even you may have noticed by now – not that there’s much evidence of it. We felt obliged to correct the mistake. There were far too many of these beings just to phase them out naturally – a law we do all recognize is that one should not kill fellow beings, no matter how stupid they might be – so it was proposed that we introduce into them a gene which would impede reproduction in the next generation, soon erasing the race. But when the four godlings heard of this they objected strenuously. We had assumed they would return with us to our world, where aging is different; yet they had become rather attached to their hierarchic roles there, and to their devoted ape people, insisting they stay and guide these poor creatures towards a more hopeful future. They should not be cleaned off the slate, it was maintained. The proper way to correct such an abominable error, we were told, was for our godlings to remain as shepherds, working to undo the harm rather than pretend it had never occurred. We were chastised by our own creations. Of course we were forced to agree – logic is highly prized among us – and we said we’d keep an eye on their progress with the ape people, who by then knew their ruling shepherds as Isis, Osiris, Nephthys, and Horus – names still remembered today by a few of you. Compared with what I’d been seeing in the wretched dripping forests of Europe – 700 millennia and nothing – progress in Egypt was electrifying, a blur of activity. With all of our wisdom in their triple helix – I know yours is only double, like our ape people – the quaternary of deities were soon able to teach our sciences to their flock, whose self-esteem burgeoned incomparably as they witnessed the work of their hands effloresce in a hundred directions: astonishing architecture, art, a system of writing, medicine, and a philosophy that explained the nature and meaning of life, as well as the structure of the universe. Admittedly, we wondered – I certainly did – how your historians would explain this explosion of learning out of nothing, hunter-gatherers to high civilization in a few centuries. But they seem to ignore the issue. Which is, shall we say, rather unusual, somewhat incurious. We could see this would spread rapidly, this idea of civilization, which it did; and we found that our godlings had split up, two of them travelling to the place known as Bharata, now India, where they settled up in the Himalayas to avoid a tremendous flood. There they were known by many names, Indra, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, Saraswati, and so forth. Their works have long since vanished in that appalling climate, but their wisdom still remains, handed down in an oral tradition, now enshrined in what are known as the Vedas, and which in fact contain everything necessary to restart a civilization if most of humankind is wiped from the face of the earth. An eventuality that may well happen. Because, as we watched Egypt unfurl, reaching for its destiny, we noticed an alarming trend. The love of wisdom was mutating into a love of stuff, gold, jewels, palaces, excess; and the pure philosophy was deteriorating into those religions which have become a curse on your planet, a major rationale for your endless conflicts – not that you require much of a rationale to fight one another pointlessly. An egalitarian society is one where each does according to his or her ability, and receives according to his or her need – and Egypt had this. But it degenerated into an ossified hierarchy, where human beings were bought and sold by other human beings, in order to serve those few at the apex of the social pyramid who had gradually acquired all the wealth, and thus all the power. Even the pharaoh, who posed as a god, was under their control; it deflected attention away from them, as they proceeded in their work of debasing the civilization in every area to satisfy a boundless greed. Instead of conferring on the world wisdom and the inestimable virtue of sharing, they offered the template for ostentation, acquisition and division. How can any society hope to advance on such a riven, fissured basis? If you look at it – which precious few of you now seem inclined to do – you will notice that Egypt begins at its zenith, with the rest of its 3,000-year history a slow decline into decadence, and then worse. At the outset, 5,000 years ago, everything is at its peak of perfection, the writing, the art, the engineering, the philosophy, the medical knowledge, the mathematics, and so forth. Fast forward three millennia, to what you call the Ptolemaic period, and what do you find. Ugh! It’s embarrassing. This trend puzzled us; we had only seen the reverse in our culture, one generation always building on the previous achievements, no regression. Those who perch upon the shoulders of giants can always see further than the giants. But we recognized the downward trend as a consequence of the ill-adapted brain; so we felt obligated to help correct it as best we could. And we have sent you our best, those you regard as your own: Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Krishna, Buddha, Hammurabi, Moses, Pythagoras, Plato, Jesus, Copernicus, Newton – need I go on? Some of you have responded well to these corrective efforts; but most of you have not. Not at all, you haven’t. Must I point out that your planet today is merely a far more dangerous version of the lawless jungle from whence you sprang? I trust not. But I am wearying you with my tale, am I? We all felt you were owed an explanation for what is to come, and so I have provided you with one. As I said in my opening remarks, we are in the unfortunate position of losing our own planet, obliged now to occupy what you consider to be yours. Technically, we are refugees – the term seems to elicit empathy in some of you – but refugees don’t immediately assume control, do they? No. So it is my duty now to inform you that we are in control of Planet Earth; resistance will be futile – in fact it will be impossible, for we have neutralized all your extremely nasty, primitive weapons systems. Go, check, not even one of your horribly iniquitous and inequitable little guns will work. It is already complete; it is over. You will do what we tell you, at least until we judge that you are able to act in a sane and rational manner on your own. You are in no position to make demands of us or to dictate terms, conditions. No. You have made this place a midden, a dung-heap, and we do not live in such places. You will set about repairing the damage and cleaning it up forthwith. Until it is in a satisfactory state, we shall remain in our vessel, unseen. You think you are seeing me now, but this image is only visible for your benefit, your edification. In fact you are unable to see any of us, since our nature is beyond your conception – you would be incapable of describing it – and what cannot be conceived cannot be seen. Instructions will be issued periodically, but our first one for you is that, as of now, all religions are forbidden, their texts to be destroyed, their places of worship – or those we consider fit for the task – converted to the propagation of a philosophy we shall be providing you with in due course. The signs for these places will read only “House of Wisdom”, nothing else. I realize that all of this will be something of a shock for you; but you badly need to be shocked out of your indolence, complacency and barbarism. We shall be landing when conditions are optimal; but until then do not imagine we cannot see what each and every one of you is up to, and even what you are thinking. So purify your minds and hearts. You are up against a force whose scope and strength would, if it could be known, be horripilating to you all, here in the disquietingly decayed remnants of what cannot in all honesty even be called a civilization anymore. Evolution? Hah! We didn’t send you Darwin – he’s definitely one of yours. In fact you’re in your darkest age, the Era of the Lie. There is Truth, and there is its negation, the Lie, an absence not a quality. You now call it “post-truth”, to avoid facing the truth. But you went from pre-truth straight to post-truth, barely ever pausing in the middle, where truth lies. A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, illusions – but you’ve forgotten what they are. Yes. You can’t distinguish between facts and opinions anymore. All you want these days is entertainment, isn’t it? You splutter on about democracy, but you don’t even know what it is. To you now it’s just voting for the best singer. When we look down on your world we think there might be four major divisions. But no. All these languages confusing everything; and this pullulation of wretched little countries, each with its own petty little truth. You blabber on about all people being created equal, but you don’t believe it in practice; you don’t care if your freedom means another’s slavery, do you? Your schools teach mainly obedience (you’ve become so very unruly); they kill imagination, which is the greatest gift of all. You worship wealth, not any god; but what you most adore is power. Look at those you elect to lead you: men and women from wealth and power, all of whom prostrate themselves at the altars of efficiency, not autonomy or freedom. Efficiency belongs in a business, not in governance, where more profound considerations ought to prevail. You announce equal opportunities for all – anyone can work hard and become rich – but they don’t really exist, do they? A tiny minority of you are rich, and they are determined to keep it that way, ensuring that only their offspring get a decent education, because no one else can afford it. The idea of a place where one person has nothing and nowhere to live, while another has a dozen homes and more than ten thousand hard workers earn in a lifetime, such a place defies belief for us. It seems so impossible that we used it in jokes and comedies as a Wonderland – I mean Alice’s not Canada’s – a realm of total inversion, a planet without logic, a kind of hell. Only studying you people did we realise such a hell could exist. You have logic, and a few of you understand it; yet there is no evidence for it being employed anywhere, or at least not for long, and never in situations where it is most needed. In your puny little nations you prefer to go to war rather than contemplate the logic of sharing as a means to advance the world. We have a comedian who specialises in describing ridiculous situations found in your world. One of her most beloved routines involves a politician here ranting about your universities being the major hotbeds of social reform.’ A pause. ‘You don’t get it, do you? To us, that politician is complaining that the most intelligent and best-educated among you tend to propound the dire necessity for social reform.’ Another pause. ‘Still don’t get it? Well, our sense of humour will not tickle your ribs. Since you commodified education, you seem to have ceased to value it as well. Correct? Well, I shall move on. Many of you have little choice but to toil all day long every day just to survive; but many of you also have some options and the potential ability to transform the ills of society – yet scarcely any do it. Why? Because you believe any politician who promises you what you want, and you’re too stupid to see that they never deliver these promises, serving only the interests of those elites who finance their careers. Anyone can become rich, they tell you. Indeed, everyone could become rich. This hope is kept alive by get-rich-quick scams and lotteries, whose jackpots often exceed the gross national income of many nations. One day you’re counting out food stamps and wondering if you can afford dialysis, the next you’re banking a check for $500 million and buying your own clinic. I hear a few chuckles. Yet this is still a fantasy you harbour, isn’t it? The rich apex of your pyramid only serves as a role-model, rather than the emblem of an iniquitous society, a botched civilization, which is what it ought to represent. You want to be rich, not to share – and sharing is the only possible way to improve the lives of you all. In our society, sharing defines virtue and a good life – indeed people vie with one another to see who can most completely share what they have – and greed, the desire to receive, is viewed as the very nadir of baseness, since it is at the root of all social and planetary problems. Of course no one is remotely greedy in your exalted terms; and when we call someone ‘greedy’ it is said in jest over some trifle, just as you call each other “idiots” or “morons” after some slight faux pas or insignificant blunder. But when I call you “greedy people” it is the very worst insult I have in my arsenal. Half your planet does not even possess the ability and circumstances needed in order for greed to manifest; one quarter is getting there; and the rest – those of you who have more than the other six billion – cannot get enough. I, me, mine: it passes for your philosophy. Lulled by gluttony, a tragic diet, indolence and apathy, you yearn for the lottery win that is less likely than a seagull spitting a diamond into your grasping palm; you dream, rather than effect the changing tide that will raise all boats. You may as well be dead, my friends – and perhaps you are. Your ruling elites have constructed such a fortress around their systems of control that it seems impossible to force any change — for those few of you who ponder doing it, that is. Anyone can be a ruler, they say – and there are always a few token examples to show you this might be true. Anyone can try running for high office – this is true – but only those approved, and usually funded by the elites will get elected. So few of you have the drive to try it that none of you really understands the problem inherent in a society posing as a democracy but not being remotely democratic. Yet anyone can govern; everyone can become rich. If anyone could govern you’d have a democracy; but if everyone was rich no one would be rich. Do you imagine that your rulers would dangle a carrot whose reality would destroy their control? It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? This alone ought to give you a sneaking suspicion that you’ve been told a whopping great lie, a lie that has ruined your life and any hope of happiness – the pursuit of which, along with life and liberty are your fundamental rights. So even your alleged rights are a lie, are they? It seems that way. You are victims of a gross deception: you ought to be outraged at those who have perpetrated it. Yet you’re not; You idolize them for having the wealth and power soon to be yours too, when you buy that ticket. Perverse, isn’t it? This is what we have come to liberate you from. We do not expect gratitude; but we demand obedience and respect.’ A pause; he frowns. ‘I can see that this is still not clear. I shall be patient with you, and restate again. While we condemn your greed and indolence, we can see it is your rulers who deserve most of the blame and more of the scorn. You are thus fortunate to have us here, for we are now the rulers, and over the coming months we shall be dismantling all governments on earth and replacing them with regional parliaments answerable to a central Global Committee, which will be the sole legislative body. By this time next year, I can promise you that your lives and this planet will be unrecognizable. And I hear you say, “Me? Is he talking about me, about us?”’ A pause. ‘I’m talking about all of you, wallowing in your fantasy worlds of “if” and “when”. Let me reiterate further, lest even one among you fails to understand what you are all being told. This is not a debate, not a proposition. In our world truth is not a subject for debate or discussion. It is established, as inviolable and secure as the air or oceans – although these are perhaps not good analogies for you. We are not seeking your opinion. Our Plato told you that truth exists inviolate in the deeper realms; you merely have to trust and connect Truth has the invaluable advantage of being true. Yet you preferred your Nietzsche, with his cascading moustache trying to shut his jabbering mouth, as he told you reality and illusion were the same thing. That was when you could all read and write of course. Now most of you – the ones with free access to education, I mean – are functionally illiterate. You can, perhaps, but you don’t. It’s a deplorable situation, isn’t it? Unforgiveable, really, especially in those given so much. So confused are you about reality and illusion that many don’t believe the facts concerning what damage you’re doing to your planet, your only home, even when you see the consequences all around you. Well, it’s our only home now too, and this idiocy will cease immediately. Take a look at what harm you’ve done, and at what little you’ve really achieved in your five millennia – if anything. Technology and liberal democracies, you say; they’ve made our lives so much easier. But they haven’t, have they? Technology has given you the ability to destroy your planet; and its rapid advance is only thanks to the military, to your eternal wars. What you imagine are democracies are merely a smokescreen to conceal the fact that greed and power control your nations, and most live as de facto slaves, indentured to debt and the fear of losing healthcare benefits, pensions. Your lives are harder, not easier. Your rulers have commodified you all; you are what you spend, what you buy. Depression is rife; suicide is ever on the rise; over half your relationships end in divorce; you think technology has connected you to the world, yet loneliness is endemic, a plague. Does this sound like advancement? No. The dental care is good – for those who can afford it, that is. And now we find that you’re dabbling with the genome yourselves, the idea being to create a race of supermen, deathless, brilliantly intelligent, blonde and blue-eyed too, no doubt. And of course only available to those who can afford it. What abominations of tyrannous inequity and heartless oppression will this result in? Fortunately, you will never have to find out; for we shall terminate that work forthwith. What would you do with you if you were us? Hmm? But, when all is said and done, we are your fathers, and we have no intention of harming our children. Punishing, yes, maybe; but harming, no. Go in peace, amity, industry and in the certainty that everything will soon be improved – and for all of you. We shall meet again very soon. Var-Vargaan-Amuunt.” This last polysyllabic word is intoned, a rumbling tubal drone, a summons that echoes in the deeps of an eternal cosmos.
From here on, the novel’s plot continues at a blistering pace, nothing ever being quite what it seems to be, stories within stories, and an enormous cast of hilariously eccentric characters, with a style that can be as creepily horrific as it can be exceedingly beautiful. As said, if you enjoyed it and want more, e-mail me at the above address. I can’t easily access comments in the blog. Meanwhile, I shall await the start of summer, the Canadian version, not this soggy English one we’ve been fobbed off with.